Want to help young people’s prospects? Then you can start by going back to school

Together we can help give our schools the sense of permanent identity they need to thrive

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The Independent Online

The institutions I admire the most are those that recognise that they are living breathing social organisms, that pay due respect to their history, which are obsessive about thriving for generations to come and which are acutely aware of having a licence to operate only for as long as they are accepted as benign by the community in which they operate.

Our Houses of Parliament have these virtues in spades, for all that as a nation we moan about the alleged shortcomings of our elected representatives.

They would characterise certain parts of the public sector, such as the Treasury and Bank of England. They are possessed by some of our world-class universities, including Oxbridge, the London School of Economics and Imperial College, for example.

And I would argue that my organisation, the BBC, tries to live up to these demanding standards, as do many of our top football clubs, including my beloved Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, for all the widespread fears that the beautiful game has been made uglier by the vast rivers of cash flowing through it.

By contrast, too many big commercial organisations try to rewrite the past with every change of management and are incapable of planning further ahead than the few weeks prior to the next earnings announcements.

My concern for some years has been that our state schools - unlike the ancient fee-paying schools that serve only a privileged few - are also too prone to reinvent themselves with every change of head.

The challenge for state schools of acquiring a confident permanent identity is made harder by governments that impose radical shifts in school structures and in teaching methods from year to year. It is also hindered by the presumption of many heads, under pressure from politicians, that the only success that matters is this year's exam results.

My own view is that each year's exam results, the quality of wider education, and the experience for students are all enhanced by a school which knows where it came from, where it is now, and where it is going.


In part, for the schools this means keeping in close touch with past students and inviting both alumni and disinterested outsiders to share their wisdom and experience with each new generation of students.

My passionate conviction that the best schools see themselves as much more than exam factories, as perhaps the most important institutions in shaping the prosperity and values of our society, is one reason why I set up Speakers for Schools.

It is also why I would urge you to do what you can to help either a school near where you live or the state school that made you what you are today. Today's young people can learn from our mistakes, which means they need to hear from us. 

Robert Peston is the BBC's Economics Editor and founder of Speakers for Schools

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